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Economy minister steps aside to fight corruption charges

Nov. 29, 2011 7:16 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 1, 2011 3:24 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Palestinian Authority Minister of Economy Hassan Abu Libdeh said Tuesday he had suspended all ministerial duties to fight corruption allegations.

Abu Libdeh told Ma'an he suspended his work in order to have time to defend himself against the accusations, which he said were "pure fabrications."

The minister added that he would publish documents "to inform the Palestinian people of the truth."

He also issued a statement saying it was the second time in three months that a court had listed accusations against him without formally informing him of any charges.

Meanwhile, attorney general Ahmad al-Maghni said that the Supreme Judicial Council had issued a court order against the minister and that a hearing would be held on Dec. 12.

Al-Maghni said the minister would face charges of money laundering and abuse of office during his time as chairman of the Palestine Capital Market Authority.

The attorney general told Ma'an that Abu Libdeh did not have the right to suspend his work, noting that only the prime minister or the cabinet could do so.

But al-Maghni said he had spoken to PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and that the cabinet had suspended Abu Libdeh from any government work until the trial is over.

Fayyad's dwindling cabinet

Abu Libdeh's legal woes come at a particularly sensitive time, with Fayyad warning of an impending economic crisis because of Israel's refusal to hand over tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority following the PLO's bid for greater UN recognition.

He is the second minister to face graft charges in recent months, with the agriculture minister leaving office in August after receiving a court summons. He also denied wrongdoing.

The Western-backed Fayyad had been hailed in the past for battling widespread corruption in the West Bank, and the loss of two senior cabinet figures after official investigations represents a blow.

A third senior government figure, Labor Minister Ahmad Majdalani, also faced pressure to resign on Tuesday because of unguarded comments broadcast on local radio, when he branded union workers "sons of bitches."

A small crowd of protesters gathered outside Fayyad's offices Tuesday to demand his removal.

Fayyad's problems have been compounded by his inability to name replacement ministers because of so-far fruitless reconciliation talks between President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, which governs in the Gaza Strip.

Under the terms of an original May accord, the two sides agreed to set up a transitional unity government, bridging the rival political factions in Gaza and the West Bank. However, no progress has been made since then on the makeup of a cabinet.

"Even if there are two ministers left, this government will remain," Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Monday.

Besides a dwindling cabinet, Fayyad's most immediate problem is how to avoid a financial meltdown.

He has warned he will not be able to pay the salaries of about 150,000 workers this month if Israel does not release the customs dues it collects on the behalf of Palestinians.

Israel froze the transfers on Nov. 1, a day after the Palestinians won UNESCO membership over Israeli and US objections as part of their drive for statehood at the United Nations in the absence of peace talks.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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